My life has had three phases: one as a Jesuit seminarian, recorded in my 2015 memoir (Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past, Oak Tree Press); another as a college teacher and scholar of 19th century British Literature, best recorded in Coleridge's Progress to Christianity: Experience and Authority in Religious Faith (Associated University Presses, 1995); and finally my current phase as a retiree given to social media posts and photo commentary on my travels with my wife, Mary.
Egypt is surrounded by desert–Sinai and the Eastern Desert on one side, for example, and the Libyan desert on the other. Furthermore the Nile is hedged around by desert within Egypt itself so that its irrigating waters have always been critical to a sufficient growth of food. That growth was by no means guaranteed when the Nile, dropping its precious silt, flooded the land only once a year. But the twentieth-century construction of the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser has made water available at regular intervals, making farming more successful along the Nile and distributing hydro electric power to the population. That technology becomes even more crucial when you consider that the Egyptian population has grown by sixteen-and-a-half million since Mary and I visited in 2011.
Another example of the benefits of modern technology to the Egyptians, citizens and tourists alike, is the lock at Edfu, which allows travel along the Nile to proceed at a fairly normal pace. I took the photos below because the lock seemed to me, as I went through it on our tour boat, not to foul up the environment of the Nile, which is none too lovely as you travel the river further toward Cairo, but rather to beautify it. Engineering and the environment are thus not always at odds. See if you don’t agree.
The leader of our tour was an Egyptian woman, perhaps in her thirties, well educated at the University of Cairo, and obviously capable of more financially rewarding work than leading visitors’ tours (though she certainly put her whole heart and soul into ours). An American woman on our bus mentioned to her that she must not have taken the Islamic faith too seriously since she did not wear a head scarf. The reply was decisive and revealing. “I am a devout follower of the Islamic faith,” the leader said, but I prefer not to wear a head scarf and in fact don’t have to. I am free to follow my own inclinations in this matter.”
There was a tone in the American woman’s stated assumption that the head scarf was a requirement all Islamic women serious about their faith had to follow, and that tone implied her own superiority in being “free” of such old fashioned restrictions. There was also, quite possibly, some irritation at being so expertly schooled by a woman she had trouble regarding as her social equal.
I could not help wonder what the American woman made of our leader’s explanation of the ancient Egyptian myth of Horus, the sky-god of the Nile Valley pictured as a rather stern falcon, and his wife Hathor, pictured with a cow’s ears, who was also the goddess of music and revelry. Hathor visited Horus once a year at his temple in a town called Edfu, from which Horus sailed out on the Nile to meet her. The couple were at length left alone to re-consummate their union while the people, presumably themselves left alone by the attending priests, enjoyed a Festival of Drunkenness. Later on the Greeks identified Hathor with their own goddess of Love and Joy, Aphrodite.
I hesitate to think what our American friend on the bus thought of the Horus/Hathor myth, but given her air of superiority I imagine she regarded it as, like the head scarf, more old fashioned nonsense which we Westerners have thankfully discarded.
As for me, the Festival of Drunkenness reminds me of New Orleans on Shrove Tuesday, which she probably also dismisses as some pointless relic of the past. I like what the Latin poet Terrence wrote: “nothing human is alien to me.”
Tour Groups run you around what’s touristy. They do not go out of their way to help you get photos of, let alone become familiar with, the everyday, work-a-day Egyptian, who is none too familiar himself. But Egypt is not essentially the modern skyline and nightlife of Cairo or even the temples, tombs and monuments in and around Aswan and Luxor. Today’s work-a-day Egyptian descends from centuries of obscure people who tried and often failed to make a living along the Nile, who believed in the religious myths they created and the gods they worshiped in the temples, who obeyed the pharaohs and have stood bemused by visitors to their culture at least since Greek and Roman times. The temples remain the powerhouse of the divine which governed even the pharaohs and these people look at you as if to say, “so what’s so fascinating anyway”? These are the essential Egypt.
So here are the few I was blessed to get a photo of.
Egypt, like other Middle Eastern Countries, is full of bazaars. The bazaar is one of the few places a tourist can mix it up with the people of the country instead of those, almost all Westerners and many Americans, with you on the trip. Also you can negotiate prices but the sellers are wily so that you can walk away thinking you have gotten an article cheap and have actually paid more for it than it’s worth. The sellers are generally poor, though, so what you paid, even if too much, is in a larger sense worth it.
My years of college teaching and writing had its rewarding but also unrewarding moments as all jobs do. Most of these moments in my case were caused by campus politics and budget shortfalls. My somewhat passive temperament and reluctance to “play the game” had a good deal to do with my occasional difficulties succeeding but so did the indifference of those overseeing my career. At one point my salary was found to be indecently low by comparison with others of similar achievement and rank. At another my effort to discover the reason why I had failed to qualify for a grant from a research committee met with this marvelously evasive response: “I’m not allowed to say, but you’re far from the only one with a complaint like that.”
I’ll say. And it looks to me like that nonchalant indifference to career disappointment must still be around and then some. How else to explain all the current advice on how to amplify a resume, knock’em dead in an interview, and advance in a job once it is landed? Jobs these days, at least for the well trained, are not scarce and yet the prevailing mood among many job holders as well as job seekers seems to me bordering on a desperation it is difficult to explain.
The need to pay off big college debts may have something to do with it. So may all the examples of corporate misbehavior we have seen ever since the Great Recession and the reluctance of banks and companies to admit it. How is a workforce to feel comfortably employed when the institutions they belong to put profit ahead of such ordinary imperatives as prudent money management, keeping our waters free of oil spills, and managing air control systems so that the lives of 346 air passengers need not have been lost. To say nothing of so vigorously marketing drugs like fentanyl to doctors that an opioid epidemic emerges. Sustained participation in an atmosphere that insists more on success than on care for the environment and the lives of others is bound to shake the nerves, especially of an employee with a conscience.
Admiring success belongs to our humanity. It has embedded itself in our culture at least as early as the Olympic Games and no doubt much earlier. But must our present-day media confront us with Heisman and Lombardi trophies, Green Jackets, Oscars and Nobel Prizes quite so constantly? What about those who come in second or third, or simply exhibit genuine everyday competence? Are they, in effect, nobodies? And what is the instinct to which commentators pander when they start speculating on the winner of next year’s Super Bowl the day after the NFL’s first exhibition game? That’s not a natural interest in success in my opinion, but an obsession with it.
Is it possible to enjoy our work anyway even when experiencing a lack of recognition or missing a deserved boost in salary? Or feeling that a preoccupation with success in the form of profit is so high a priority of our employers that it can casually dispense with a concern for ordinary human decency?
When asked why they do the work they do some people reply, honestly enough, “for the money” or “to feed my family” or “because I majored in that field in college.” But as legitimate as these reasons are, can we go deeper inside ourselves to ask what drew us to our particular line of work in the first place? When I was a kid of just 9 or 10, the neighbor next door took to calling me “the perfessor” in a startling prophecy of what turned out to be my future. Similarly, I think most of us show an aptitude for some kind of work fairly early on in our lives–electronics, let’s say, or constructing things, or instinctively coming to others’ sides when they are hurt. Finding a job we are naturally cut out for helps make those jobs continuously satisfying. I am by no means suggesting that we should avoid complaining about an unfair work evaluation or making our case for a salary increase, or looking for a comparable job, or even becoming a whistle blower if there is just cause for it. I suggest only trying to rediscover the joy we could have found early on in whatever work we do and staying faithful to the idea, such as being helpful to one another, that drew us into that work.
When these shots were taken we were on board our ship, The Queen of Hansa, and on our way to Luxor (named Thebes by the ancient Greeks), and the Egyptian Temples there, including the Valley of the Kings and The Valley of the Queens.
Our tour package included a ship for cruising the Nile named the Queen of Hansa. It provided a comfortable way, as you can see, for heading from the area of Aswan, Lake Nasser and the Egyptian Temples on the Island of Philae to the Temple at Luxor, about which more later.
Huge numbers of these sailboats, called Feluccas, cruise the Nile. You can charter one for more than a day but usually have to bring your own blanket and food.